Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2008 Issue

Washington-Pike-Mathematics-Science Archive to be Sold

Pike

An extraordinary lot to sell in difficult times


By Bruce McKinney

Nicholas Pike of Newbury-port has been dead a long time but for a few weeks this fall the 18th century New England mathematician is back on stage at John McInnis Auctions in Amesbury, Massachusetts, a short distance from where he lived. The occasion is the outcome of luck, perseverance, and timing. Distant relatives have sent to auction an archive of his material that is to be sold as a single lot. Mr. Pike who in the latter part of the 18th century published, in Newbury-port [then a hyphenated name], a book on mathematics a copy of which he soon sent to George Washington in the waning days of the confederation period. He was rewarded six months later with a three-page response the family has kept for more than two hundred years. Also included in the lot are Mr. Pike's manuscript notes and illustrations covering three decades of observation. As well there is a broadside he published to announce his project in 1786. The lot is a gem of completeness and beyond rare. It is offered for sale on October 19th.

Mr. Pike's printed work is "A New and Complete System of Arithmetic, composed for the Use of the Citizens of the United States," a book that was frequently republished into the early 19th century to tease and torture students for whom the mastery of numbers were deemed important. Almost a hundred copies of the first edition are identifiable in the OCLC though some are probably later editions. It can be said with certainty the book is not terribly coveted and by itself only a minor rarity. A copy of the 1788 first edition was recently available on Abe for $275. Nevertheless this copy and the material with it are exceptional. As usual the devil is in the details.

Here is what's offered:

[1] the author's annotated copy of "A New and Complete System of Arithmetic, composed for the Use of the Citizens of the United States," the first edition;

[2] a three page letter from George Washington, dated 1788, and written to the author thanking him for the copy just received and commending him on his accomplishment and the importance of the work;

[3] Mr. Pike's personal journals with notes, drawings, and calculations on various subjects including mathematics, navigation and astronomy, first dated 1764 and continuing to 1796.

What is of course uncommon in the upcoming sale at John McInnis Auctions is the additional material that transports an interesting book into the fabled territory of uber-collectibles. The three page letter from George Washington, in which he thanks the author for the copy just received and commends him for his effort, appears to be in his own hand. Further, the book sent by Mr. Pike, we now know, was sufficiently valued by Washington that, in the accounting of his estate a dozen years later, it was noted as present, a privilege not accorded to all books Washington received. Many were given away. This one he chose

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